Meet our Researchers: James Lee

What attracted you to medicine?

In school, I had a passion for the sciences, and I also knew that I wanted a career that allowed me to work with people. Being in the medical profession seemed like a good fit. Looking back, I can honestly say that I had made a really good choice. In my preclinical years, as the excitement of getting into medical school wore off, and the reality of endless studying set in, I did somewhat struggle with motivation. The turning point came when I started the clinical rotations. My spirit was lifted by the interaction with patients, and I started to see the purpose of all that I was studying. As I progressed through my medical and surgical career, I can increasingly understand what it means to be able to help those in need; it truly is a privilege to be in that position.

What did your path look like to get into medicine?

I was fortunate to have a care-free childhood and teenage years. I was born in Taiwan and spent my early childhood there. I then moved to Malaysia during my junior high school years, and finally I studied years 10 to 12 at Melbourne Grammar School, class of 1995. I studied medicine at Melbourne University, graduating in 2001. Towards the end of my internship, I started to develop an interest in surgery. I found the faster pace of work in surgery intellectually stimulating, and seeing patients quickly cured of their diseases by surgery was also a great motivator. Additionally, I was very much attracted to the hands-on component of performing operations.

How did you get into high mortality rate cancer research?

Towards the end of my specialist training, I had the opportunity to take part in some thyroid cancer research. One thing led to another, I ended up dedicating 3 years in full-time research in pursuit of a PhD in the area of thyroid cancer biomarker research. From the time I completed my PhD, I have been juggling a career as an endocrine surgeon and as an academic. The academic side of my career includes the research I do in thyroid cancer and other general and endocrine surgical topics, as well as teaching the next generation of surgeons and researchers. Many of The Aftershock supporters would be familiar with one of the areas of my research which is in the use of an advanced sequencing technology known as Next Generation Sequencing on needle samples to help plan surgical treatment of patients with thyroid masses. While this technique is more developed in the United States, it is still in its early stages of development in Australia and most other countries. I am also working with epidemiologists to study patient reported outcomes to improve our ability to provide care for thyroid cancer patients.

Why is there a need for more awareness and funding for lesser known cancers?

We have been able to do a lot of our research and publish a lot of studies without major funding, in part, by collaborating with other researchers. However, in order to expand the scope of our research and to take our research to the next level, we need more substantial funding. With rare cancers, it is very difficult to get competitive funding, due to the perceived impact of that money. Fortunately, in thyroid cancer, the majority of the disease is not of the aggressive type, but that further impacts our ability to garner competitive grants. We hope that as we continue to build on our work, we can gather more momentum and government funding. With more resources, we can engage in research projects that translate to even more significant and positive impact on patients with thyroid cancer.

What do you enjoy doing outside of practising medicine?

When I am not working, I am a keen amateur photographer, an origami enthusiast and social tennis player.